International Order & Conflict
Commentary

Liberia: The Forgotten Experiment in Nation-Building

in Program

After nearly a
decade and a half of civil war, Liberia
prepares to have its second post-conflict presidential election in 2011.  With billions in foreign investment, Africa’s
first female President running for re-election, and the UN looking to
dramatically reduce its peacekeeping operations, Liberia’s fragile security will
once again be tested.

 

By Benjamin Flowers – “I know where the guns are buried,” whispered a man as he
leaned over to make sure I was getting the full story during a community meeting
organized by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in a small village
just south of the Sierra
Leone border.  Similar sentiments were repeated to us frequently
in the back of rooms where the TRC’s Ethnic and Religious Subcommittee gathered
to discuss the root causes of the country’s 14-year civil war.  Whether or not these statements were true, they
underscored a deep sense of fear that lay just below the surface.  Such feelings remain prevalent in a country with
a nascent government, a fractured sense of national identity, and little
institutional capacity.  The question
remains as to whether a top-down approach to nation-building can adequately
address the needs of a country so dramatically divided between the
decision-makers in the capital and the majority indigenous population.  As peace has been maintained in the country
for nearly 7 years, and media coverage begins to wane, are new strategies
needed to ensure long-term security?    

In many ways, Liberia has been an example of
success in post-conflict reconstruction. 
The international community has invested billions of dollars there since
the signing of Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ending the war in 2003.  In 2005, the country held its first free and
fair elections since the forced resignation of then President Charles Taylor,
who is currently on trial at The Hague for war
crimes in neighboring Sierra
Leone.  Under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female elected leader, key governance
indicators, such as rule of law, human rights, and economic and human
development, have significantly improved. 

Johnson-Sirleaf inherited a budget which barely exceeded
$120 million and has since increased it to over $369 million for the coming
fiscal year.  The Liberian economy grew 7.5%
last year, and after achieving the completion point of the enhanced Heavy
Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, the IMF and the World Bank awarded Liberia
with $4.6 billion in debt relief.  Private
foreign investment has also begun to flourish since UN sanctions were
lifted. 

While these and other development indicators continue to
improve, for the average Liberian, they do not necessarily provide a sense of
stability and security.  Rural
communities, where the conflict began, are still largely inaccessible and major
development projects are almost non-existent. 
Unemployment, particularly among ex-combatants and former child soldiers,
remains devastatingly high. Little has been done to address inequality, a key
source of the conflict and an ongoing tension between those descended from Liberia’s tiny
“settler” community of freed American slaves, and the majority indigenous
population.   

The United Nation’s Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has extended
its mission through the run-up to the 2011 presidential elections, at which
time it will likely turn over most peacekeeping duties to Liberian security
forces.  Many believe UNMIL will then depart
the country for good.  There have been
large investments in reforming Liberia’s
security sector, but results are uneven at best. Due to significant US involvement,
the Liberian military is small, but well-trained, as is the paramilitary
Emergency Response Unit (ERU).  The local
police, however, are unprepared to protect Liberians, and public confidence is
low.  Organized crime in Monrovia has surged, and even the President
has criticized the police response. 

More than two years ago, the TRC concluded that Liberia could
return to violence unless steps were taken to address land disputes in the
country.  Liberia’s weak institutions have
proved unable to deal with the problems created by the mass displacement of
hundreds of thousands of people during the war. 
Dispute resolution programs which draw on Liberia’s traditional mechanisms
are underway in many parts of the country, but violence remains a reality,
particularly in remote areas.  For the
average Liberian, land disputes are a flashpoint for ethnic tensions, and
unless taken seriously, may undermine efforts to build a shared Liberian identity.

This past spring, religious and ethnic violence erupted in
Voinjama, Lofa County, in a scene reminiscent of the
war.  UN Peacekeepers failed to
immediately respond to quell the violence, and subsequently, four were killed
and fourteen wounded, churches and mosques burned to the ground, and thousands fled
in terror.  Unfortunately, incidents of
local violence have largely gone unnoticed by the international media in recent
years.   Even with a UN presence of
nearly ten thousand ground troops, these major rifts within communities
continue be a source of conflict on the local level.   

With elections in 2011, Liberia’s fragile peace will again
be tested.  President Johnson-Sirleaf recently
announced she will seek a second term. 
Prince Johnson, a former rebel leader who is implicated in the torture
and murder of former President Doe, has also announced his candidacy.  Prince Johnson was easily elected Senator of
Nimba County in 2005, and while his support may not be widespread, his
candidacy, combined with the gradual draw down of UN Peacekeepers, could signal
the end of peace to many Liberians. 
Fatigue can be overwhelmed by frustration as the memories of war begin
to fade.

 

Photo Credit: Pewee S. Flomoku: The Liberian Women’s Peace Movement protests in front of the American Embassy in Monrovia, 2003.

 

 

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